A Free-Market Energy Blog

A Spot Coal Shortage in India: Central Planners Overrate Wind

By Vijay Jayaraj -- October 10, 2018

“Wind turbines’ poor capacity to provide electricity was exposed last month, when [my home town in southern India] Tamil Nadu faced an unforeseen energy shortage due to a dwindling coal supply. The state had unscheduled power cuts for the first time since 2015.”

“Energy from wind turbines dropped 37 percent this year because of heavy monsoon rains. But heavy monsoon rains are not abnormal! They are blamed simply because they interrupt the turbines. Before the era of wind turbines, the rains were just as severe, but they didn’t interrupt power generation.”

India is coal country with a 76 percent market share for the indigenous fuel. But authorities are pushing uneconomic renewables as part of a green central planning plan.

This tension between economic energy and politically correct energy came into focus with a recent electricity panic in my city located in southern India. A central planning error caused a temporary shortage, and part of the problem was overestimating the contribution of (unrealiable) wind power.

Behind this misstep is the perception that coal is destroying our planet and thus evil. This is the message of the mainstream media of the wealthy West. But the reality is starkly different in developing countries.

Climate Alarm, Wind Reliance

Climate alarmists have long opposed the usage of coal. They believe carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants are among the major reasons for the increase in global temperatures to levels they claim are dangerous.

Set aside for the moment the fact that the computer models on which they base their belief consistently predict two-to-three times the warming actually observed over the relevant period, and the fact that natural contributors to the warming can’t be ruled out. For our purposes, we’ll just assume carbon dioxide from coal power plants really is a major driver of recent warming.

Faced with that, climate alarmists argue that wind can replace coal. Unfortunately, wind technology is light years away from becoming a dependable source of energy.

Because wind is an extremely low-density energy source, compared with extremely high-density coal, oil, and natural gas, gathering wind sources requires vast tracts of land, and converting them to electricity is very expensive. But that’s not wind’s biggest problem.

Because wind doesn’t always blow, energy from wind turbines is intermittent. That means it’s unreliable. Wind turbines require backup power plants fueled by coal (or natural gas) to operate nonstop as a  “spinning reserve” (highly inefficient), ready to ramp up at any moment when wind fails—which it does frequently. Otherwise, the grid becomes unstable, and dangerous, catastrophic brownouts and blackouts occur.

And the more wind gets fed into the grid, the higher the risk of instability unless the backup plants multiply right along with the wind turbines.

What all that means is that using wind requires a duplicate energy generating system, so we’re paying for energy twice—once for the energy that’s always ready when we want it, and once for the energy that’s ready only at nature’s whim.

The pro-alarmist media, institutions, and non-profits continue to deny the inefficiencies of wind despite its being an undeniable reality in the energy sector of many developed and developing countries. The problem comes to light during energy crises in various parts of the world.

Wind Power in Tamil Nadu

One such place is my home state of Tamil Nadu. Its wind turbines have a capacity of about 7.9 gigawatts. Tamil Nadu is often glorified as a global leader in wind energy and regularly compared with Scandinavian countries.

Yet the reality is totally different!

Before looking at any specific locale, it’s important to understand the difference between capacity and actual power generated. As energy analyst Robert Bryce explains in his book Power Hungry, “many wind projects have a capacity factor of 10, 20, or 30 percent”—meaning they generate only about that much of their capacity. “But some grid operators are using capacity factors that are far lower.”

Indeed, Bryce reported, though the American state of Texas is widely viewed as a leader in wind power, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, “which manages 85 percent of the state’s electric load, pegs wind’s capacity factor at less than 9 percent.”

Wind turbines’ poor capacity to provide electricity was exposed last month, when Tamil Nadu faced an unforeseen energy shortage due to a dwindling coal supply. The state had unscheduled power cuts for the first time since 2015.

Most of the state’s electricity (45 percent) comes from stable and reliable coal plants. They require 72,000 tons of coal per day. The coal demand rose, and the subsequent shortage of coal created a power-shortage panic. The federal government had to dispatch coal to the state.

In such situations, wind turbines cannot provide the required backup. Moreover, the rise in energy demand from coal plants can be attributed to the fall in wind energy this year.

Energy from wind turbines dropped 37 percent this year because of heavy monsoon rains. But heavy monsoon rains are not abnormal! They are blamed simply because they interrupt the turbines. Before the era of wind turbines, the rains were just as severe, but they didn’t interrupt power generation.

This is precisely why wind turbines are unreliable. Wind patterns, on which wind energy depends absolutely, are beyond human control. Regardless of the seasons, the output from turbines is intermittent.

Germany Problem

This isn’t just a developing-world problem. Despite an increase in the number of turbines, output from German wind factories dropped in 2017 because of slower winds.

Germany’s wind turbines have survived all these years mainly because of subsidies, not because of their ability to generate high-quality—that is, reliable, predictable, always-there-when-you-need-it—electricity.

Wind turbines are infamous for their operational inefficiency. Wind factories usually are built with capacities far above their normal actual production in order to meet the required production targets.

But at times of steady optimum-velocity winds, they produce more than grid operators can use, leaving electricity to be sold at a loss to other locales.  This means that the wind turbines operate far below capacity most of the time, requiring grid operators to meet much of the demand from thermal plants.

This is why Germany’s wind turbines were largely non-profitable and generated an immense amount of waste (energy not needed at the time by German users) that was offloaded to Third-World countries.

Conclusion

Wind energy will not becoming cheap anytime soon. The International Energy Agency forecasts that renewables will still be the most expensive energy source everywhere in 2040.

Relying on wind energy can make any state or country end up in situations like this. The energy generated from wind factories cannot be used as an exclusive source of electricity for any heavy industry or town.

It is time we stopped providing subsidies to wind power. If wind turbines are really efficient and offer a great way of generating electricity, they will survive without subsidies. But the truth is that they are inefficient and a financial burden.

Message from India and from German: Don’t take the wind out of our lives, just the wind turbines.

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Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Chennai, India.